Amnesia at the Movies

Hollywood has made so many films featuring amnesia – from the reasonably accurate Memento to the purely fictional Long Kiss Goodnight – that there are legitimate scientific articles analyzing the portrayal of amnesia in films. But there are at least two forms of amnesia that seem underrepresented; a movie aficionado might find particular scenes or instances that illustrate them, but only if they knew about them already and went hunting for examples. Perhaps it’s time for a cognition-loving scriptwriter to take on the challenge of expanding Hollywood’s repertoire.

Amnesia

More than one way to lose a memory. Stock photo from dreamstime.com

Infantile Amnesia

We are all amnesiacs, every single one of us, just in a way that most people don’t think is interesting: we don’t remember the first years of our lives, and what we do remember tend to be brief moments in time. My own earliest memory dates to roughly preschool, and consists of me walking down the hallways of our house carrying a bowl of oatmeal, dropping it on the carpet, and staring at the resultant broken bowl and splattered mess. To hear a memory from before even preschool, you generally have to find someone with a hospital visit, birth, or death in the family, and even those are also vague – one of my students reported a memory from around 2 that was mostly of her mother’s beach-ball like stomach. Scientists aren’t sure why we forget those years – and I am certainly not sure why the dropping of a bowl of oatmeal was immortalized for posterity – but it is amnesia as surely as Hollywood’s favorite bump-on-your-head-you-don’t-remember-you’re-an-assassin kind.

Come to think of it, I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t latched on to this idea before, because mystery novels such as Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder have already taken advantage of this setup for a witness who cannot, or can only partially, remember a crime from their childhood. As a cognitive scientist, I’d like to see the movie work in different theories of this amnesia: perhaps a plucky sidekick will devise a way to break the “language barrier” and access those early memories, made when the amnesiac could barely speak and so stored without language. As a science fiction fan, on the other hand, I see a great potential for time travel: the amnesiac should travel back to interview herself when she was in kindergarten and could still remember those early years (the explanation for why they couldn’t just go back to the time of the original crime, I leave to the scriptwriters). Just, please, no hypnotic regression or false memories.

Momnesia

Mothers are amnesiacs twice over: once for forgetting their own childhoods, and once thanks to their children. The more dramatic potential change from pregnancy and childbirth is postpartum depression (now getting its own YouTube original series), but there is also a subtler change dubbed with the popular portmanteau “momnesia”, the particular kind of memory loss experienced by mothers. Yes, if you’ve given birth and have ever put baby shoes in the freezer or left a pan of water to boil dry, you can blame your child, even if they were nowhere in the room; pregnancy effectively seems to make even a young mother’s memory as bad as someone who should be planning their retirement. The good news here is that moms get some benefits along with the momnesia, as their brains change to be more sensitive to their children’s needs and recognize threats. Still, this one may be harder to turn into a Hollywood movie. I can just see the taglines for Supermom! now: She diapers! She cuddles! She can recognize when a villain is up to no good at 40 paces! But distraction is her kryptonite, and she won’t remember why she came to the police station! Maybe this one should be given to Lifetime instead of Hollywood.

I think this will be my new go-to diatribe whenever amnesia appears on the silver screen, or the small ones. Others can foam at the mouth over the horrible fallacy that a second hit to the head will restore your memory and other errors the writers let leak into their story for the sake of plot. I will just campaign for the other, more common but lesser known forms of amnesia to be given their fifteen moments of fame.

 

 

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